on 23 October 2012
I bought the book expecting to be disappointed. This was because the writer claimed to have based parts of the book on the recollections of her uncles and I felt this might make the book less objective or open to cliches.
However, it's one of the best books on the Italian involvement in the war that I've read - and one of very few books on the subject written in English. It's more than this. It provides a vision of something completely outside the boundaries of normal human experience. Something that is barely comprehensible to us, in 21st century Europe. It gives us an insight into the apocalyptic world created by the `total war' in Russia through the eyes of people who felt themselves to be outsiders.
The book starts by giving an overview of the initial involvement of the Italian army in Russia from 1941 to 1942. It then focuses on the commitment of the Alpine division to the 1942 offensive, it's encirclement in the Russian winter offensives in 1942-43 and the retreat and treatment of prisoners.
However, the text combines eyewitness accounts with an historical overview. In doing this, we get a glimpse of what was happening on the Russian front from a different perspective. It isn't a German or Soviet perspective.
The witness accounts describe how the German authorities treated civilians, Jews and prisoners of war with inhuman disregard and violence. This is a horrific world of planned starvation and casual murder. What is striking, is that it appeared horrific and shocking to the Italian soldiers who saw it at the time. These were veterans of the war in Albania and Greece, yet their testimony shows that atrocities and mass murder were commonplace and evident in Nazi occupied Russia. The book maintains that the Italian military viewed this behaviour with revulsion, ensuring that their own troops behaved properly towards civilians. This appears to be borne out in most of the accounts, though it's unclear how much the Italian High Command knew.
Hamilton then moves on to describe the events and conditions on the Don front for the 3 Italian Alpine divisions. She presents a picture of what everyday life was like, as well as giving precise details of positions, issues, equipment and how the war was being conducted. Even though the Alpine divisions were designated as elite units, they were treated with disregard by the German High Command; to be employed as dispensible cannon fodder, like the rest of the Italian troops. Equipment was inappropriate, if marginally better than that of the infantry. They weren't used as mountain troops. During the subsequent Russian offensive, they were deprived of accurate information and refused permission to withdraw from the Don front until two days after the majority of German units had begun to withdraw. By this time they had been encircled.
What happened next was, in every sense, a nightmare. A fighting march over hundreds of kilometres for some 200,000 Italian troops mixed with Hungarian, Romanian and German units and stragglers in temperatures that regularly fell to minus 40 degrees centigrade. Again the book has struck a good balance between trying to recreate the first-hand experience of this retreat through testimony and accounts, and giving more precise details of what happened during the retreat and break-out. The Alpine divisions with surviving elements of the 24th Panzer division formed the fighting advance which eventually broke out of the encirclement and facilitated the escape of over 100,000 troops.
Her narrative and eye witness accounts present a very vivid image of what happened during this retreat. It's a story of abandoned wounded, lice and typhus, slow starvation and mutilation from frostbite. It also describes how the German military command only provided assistance to its own troops, resulting in the destruction of two out of the three Alpine divisions. One surviving Italian Major openly addressed his troops after reaching safety; `It's an insult to our dead to speak of an alliance with the Germans...the Germans are our enemy, more so than in the war of 1915'. On the other hand, Russian peasants provided help to retreating Italians offering food and shelter.
I don't think this is a just the author's opinion. The book's portrayal of many German soldiers and of Russian civilians is a fair reflection of the experience of many survivors. One such person was Giovanni Passera, my cousin, a soldier in the artillery, told me how his shoes had fallen apart in the freezing temperatures and how he had bound his frostbitten feet in rags. He had been left to die in a peasant's house. The old Russian lady who lived in the house treated and bound his feet and after a period, he recovered enough to continue his march. He claimed that she had saved his life. He lost his toes and one foot to frostbite.
The book also describes the capture and treatment of prisoners by the Red Army. German prisoners were usually shot , though other nationalities went through a process of gradual extermination which killed some 60,000 of the 70,000 captured Italians. First, the prisoners were forced marched in freezing temperatures for several days without food. The wounded and those too weak to march were killed. Most were then locked into rail cars for weeks on end, with no food or water. Finally the survivors were herded into temporary prison camps and deprived of water and food, suffering from dysentery and typhus. Cannibalism was common. By Spring 1943, even Stalin was shocked at how few Italian prisoners had survived. With his eye on post-war propaganda, he appears to have tried to keep the remaining Italian prisoners alive - perhaps to be re-educated as Communists and returned to Italy.
I don't see this as a separate section of the book. The treatment of prisoners is central to the nature of this conflict. It was a conflict where inhumane ideologies had achieved dominance. Starvation and organised mass murder had become integral to the conduct of the war for both the Nazis and the Soviets. For the Nazis, it was an ideological principle and for the Soviets it was merely a practicality.
Although the book relies on previous Italian histories of these events, it acknowledges this, and provides a good deal of new eyewitness material.
Hope Hamilton's book recreates and documents this world through the experience of the Italian Alpine Corps. It is as an accurate and detailed account of the retreat but also manages to get the reader to understand the incomprehensible. A vision of human beings caught up in evil. If you're looking for your standard Osprey military history with crisp clean uniforms or a comic strip military adventure, this isn't it.